The Indian Super League (ISL) might still be a fledgling tournament but it’s shadow is already looming large over the long-established I-League. It is reliably learnt that the two I-League sides from Pune, Bharat FC and Pune FC, are ‘seriously considering’ the option of discontinuing their first team operations.
While Pune are disillusioned that there seems to be no long-term vision to run the I-League, Bharat are having second thoughts after a miserable debut season, where they finished at the bottom despite investing heavily. Both teams do not see I-League as an economically viable investment anymore. Pune, however, are likely to continue with their youth teams.
All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel has urged the two sides to join hands and operate under one banner. But there has been no progress on the proposal as well. The club owners were scheduled to meet Patel on Tuesday but the meeting had to be postponed as he is abroad.
A Pune official said it is getting ‘increasingly difficult’ for them to manage the club as there’s very little return on the heavy investment they have made. Since its inception in 2007, Pune FC have spent an average of Rs 10 crore per season and have some of the best names in the country on their roster.
The club has consistently been in the top five of the table since being promoted to the top division in 2009. However, they claim to have been let down by the governing body. “There have hardly been any returns. In all these years, there is no revenue stream for clubs. The league does not have a proper broadcaster and there is no marketing plan. Crucially, there seems to be no vision for I-League, which is extremely concerning,” the official said. “The focus is on ISL. They say the two leagues will be merged but no ones knows when and how that will happen. It’s tough to exist in such a scenario.”
Bharat, meanwhile, haven’t even signed a single player for the upcoming season so far. Their coach Stuart Watkiss has been in Pune for close to three weeks but there has been little intent shown by the owners. Majority of the team’s management has already resigned, including their CEO Suvrat Thatte. The clubs from Pune have faced huge problems in engaging local community and filling up the stands as well. Three top division teams are based out of Pune — Pune FC, Bharat FC and ISL’s Pune City. However, none of them have been able to crack the code. They all play their home games at the Balewadi Sports Complex, in the outskirts of the city.
AIFF general secretary Kushal Das said they haven’t been officially informed by the clubs yet. “There is no official confirmation. Neither have they written to us about this. They participated in the I-League workshop recently. I believe Patel has spoken to them and will meet them. I don’t know what exactly will happen there,” Das said.
Pune and Bharat are not the only clubs who have been having second thoughts over their future in the I-League. Speculations were rife last season that Goan giants Salgaocar too will shut shop whereas Dempo have severely downscaled their operations after getting relegated last season.